On Being A Dad In A Digital Age

I always wanted to have kids. From a very early age, I knew that being a dad was something I would do. Instead of being an accidental, unintentional male figure in a kid’s life, I was going to attack this thing with gusto.

This is the part where everyone says, “I had no idea what I was in for” and “ZOMG the nuclear waste that comes out of them.” It’s true that you’re never really prepared, but not in the sense of changing diapers, 2 a.m. screaming fits, or permanent metamorphosis to dad bod. I was ready for that stuff. Bring it. I was never quite able to convince my wife that if two kids were good, 12 were better. But I was totally ready to do this.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the internet. Man, there’s some warped stuff out there – some of which my 6th grader has already discovered.

In my professional life, I’m a social media manager, writer, and digital consultant. I’m well aware of the magical world of the internet. So when I think about exposing my 6th grader to certain subreddits, or the open comment section on any political article on a news site, or Twitter or Facebook … heck, even a Google search on dear old Dad … a shudder goes up and down my spine.

It’s an even more complex puzzle as my 6th grader begins to explore dating, online chatting, social media, and all the awkwardness of puberty.

Living in a hyperconnected world as a kid is so different from what I experienced. There are days when I’m like, “Dude, you’re on your own. I got nothing.” I realize, of course, that saying that is not an option. So I’m forced to jump in and see what my kid is doing.

What I’ve found is that, while there are way more layers of complexity to that awkward middle school stage, the fundamental awkwardness is timeless. There are just so many more ways to express it and be burned by it online. The difficult balance comes not in knowing who your kid chats with online, or learning just enough Minecraft to be conversant, or who they date, or what they’re up to when they hang out with their friends. That stuff is Parenting 101. It’s not only ok, but mandatory that you, as a parent, pry. The difficult part is finding the tipping point – that point where you’re being an overbearing control freak, unwilling to let your kid explore, experience, learn, grow, spread wings.

I mean, this is the kid who once woke up from a dream in which there was an epidemic of the frog pox. The kid who once planted bird seed to see if a bird seed tree would grow. The kid who told me on a canoe ride that the sun glinting on the lake made it look like it was covered in fireflies. I’m not sure I’ll ever be fully ready for how the internet could wreak havoc on that.

I’ve already had to tell my kid to remove some posts that were a bit too open. I’ve already had the talk about how the internet can ruin your life if you overshare. I’ll be making it a regular occurrence to sit down together and watch the SyFy series, "The Internet Ruined My Life."

We haven’t even gotten into cyberbullying yet. My kid’s school has had a problem with bullying over the years, and has taken steps to curtail it. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t go on, or that some families believe that the rules don’t apply to them, or that kids don't find a way to do it anyway. Open discussion of why bullying is a problem, and how to prevent it, has had a strong effect at our school. Every kid now knows what bullying is.

I’m not so certain, however, about what goes on online. I mean, I can’t just tell my kid to stand up to the bully and punch him or her in the nose like we used to do when we were in school. How do you tell your kid to respond to cyberbullying, or to the fallout from something that shouldn’t have been posted, or the dangers of being too trusting while chatting with someone online? How do kids deal with a post gone wrong in class the next day?

I suppose the answer is the same in either case. Give the kid someone to talk to. Openly discuss the problems they face with their peers. Guide them with positive activities like sports, church, Scouting – character building activities that give them a positive direction and teach leadership skills. Be there. Be proactive. Know what they’re up to so that you’re not caught by surprise as a parent. Step in when necessary. Help them find solutions. Whether it’s online or in class, they face the same challenges. They’re trying to figure out this nutty world we live in, and trying to figure out who they are as individuals.

So maybe this really isn’t an article about how parenting has changed in a digital world. After all, trying to guide your kid through their awkward transitional phases in the world around us, well, that’s been going on since parenting was invented.

We just have to remember to watch out – the frog pox is around every corner